Companies frequently suffer from problems on the inside more than from problems with the competition. And the most common reason internal issues typically arise is because of a lack of aligned execution. It’s leaders’ jobs to get everyone pulling in the same direction, but many resort to a “compromise” that does anything but: They simply “agree to disagree” and then just plow ahead. Here’s why this strategy so often fails, and what savvy managers should do instead.
Disagreement Is Good, And Inevitable
Effective leaders need their teams to work toward unfamiliar and unachieved goals, rather than just executing the same familiar things they’ve done a million times before. In these cases, it’s likely that no one knows the sure-shot way to succeed.
When many smart people are trying to figure that out together, it’s normal for divergent and strong opinions to crop up. This risks prolonging the decision-making process–since, after all, teams can rarely wait for consensus in order to take action. Yet if leaders force a decision too quickly, the execution can suffer due to foot dragging from those who disagree with it.
For managers, this dilemma tends to lead to one of two outcomes:
- “Agree to disagree.” This is the escapist route, whereby a manager ends a conflict by getting all parties to tolerate–but not necessarily accept–the outcome. This often means trying to keep egos intact, even at the cost of what’s best for the company or team. What’s more, it preserves the status quo; even after everyone’s supposedly moved on, people will continue to try to convince one another of their own opposing views, merely “tolerating” the one they’ve all nominally “agreed” to.
- “Disagree, then commit.” The key here is to earn everyone’s actual commitment, so that the disagreement doesn’t continue to fester beneath the surface. It’s the far more effective “solver” route that moves past egotism and puts the organization’s needs first.
Far too many leaders and managers allow their teams to “agree to disagree.” It’s one thing to cultivate diverse perspectives in the decision-making process, but it’s another to fail to arrive at the best one after they’ve all had a chance to be considered. By agreeing to disagree, managers essentially commit their teams to a painfully slow execution, ridden with factionalism, that’s doomed to fail.
A Hybrid Solution
The alternative approach, of “disagree, then commit,” combines a little bit of democracy and a little bit of dictatorship–in that order:
- Democracy is ideal for encouraging everybody to participate in decision making by freely offering up their ideas. But it can slow down execution if it persists long after the decision point is reached.
- Dictatorship can close people off to the decision-making process. It disallows free opinions and disagreement. Later on, the execution is typically aligned and disciplined. But over time, dictatorial leaders lose ground support, and the execution advantage fades away.
Neither of these systems works well on their own. It’s better to take a democratic approach to the discussion, and then once everyone feels they’ve had an honest chance at sharing their perspective, to impose a little dictatorship. Here are the steps involved in a “disagree, then commit” approach:
- Disagree. Encourage free discussion before reaching any type of decision. Expect and invite people to have strong opinions. Disagreement here is a good thing. If two people always agree, one of them isn’t really needed.
- Commit. With or without consensus, a decision must be taken within a time frame the manager needs to make everyone aware of from the get-go. At the end of that period, the onus is on the leader to decide on the best course of action. In cases when disagreements remain at the end of the debate–and chances are they will–leaders need to be tie-breakers, making a decision that aligns with the organization’s best interests, and framing their choice precisely that way. This commitment stage can’t be glossed over, and you certainly can’t start executing before then.
- Iterate and improve. Finally, leaders make room for divergent perspectives throughout the execution, even though everyone is committed to the same course of action. They encourage feedback in private (not public) conversations and iterate as needed. But they don’t open up the floor to another team brainstorm midway through. At this stage, the leader is responsible to make sure progress is being made.
The benefits of a “disagree, then commit” approach are clear: People are part of the decision making in a way that encourages ownership and channels diverse viewpoints productively, yet they’re all brought together toward the same goal. After everyone has committed to the leader’s decision, there’s still the expectation that the team’s efforts may be course-corrected. Managers stay open to feedback and keep improving–and their team members know they can continue to influence (but not sabotage) that process.
Ajay Shrivastava is chief product officer and chief technology officer at Knowlarity, a cloud communications company. He was formerly the chief technology officer at OYO Rooms.